DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — “Ground zero at the border” was a term the Turkish media used frequently in the 1990s when Turkey carried out cross-border military operations into northern Iraq to pursue militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Journalists covering the operations would say they were reporting from “ground zero at the border” to emphasize that they were at the Turkish-Iraqi frontier. Yet, at times, some of those who made that claim would in reality be kilometers away from the border.
The Turkish media is back at “ground zero at the border,” but this time at the Syrian border, as the Turkish military presses ahead with its offensive on Kurdish-held Afrin. In the 1990s, the public had to rely largely on what the mainstream media reported, but today, in the digital era, people have easy access to various news sources via the internet. Agence France-Presse, for instance, reported that historical sites were damaged in the operation, even though the Turkish media did not mention the issue. Also, Turkish officials frequently emphasize that utmost attention is paid to avoid civilian casualties, but according to Robert Fisk, the veteran reporter of The Independent, civilians were hit as well. In the Turkish media, such reports could be found only in a few opposition news sites.
The Turkish media’s performance in the Afrin campaign had in fact become obvious from the very onset. Soon after the operation started, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim convened a meeting with senior media representatives to give them guidelines on how to cover the offensive. As part of the 15-point list, media organizations were reportedly urged to emphasize that the army was cautious about harming civilians and that the operation targeted not only the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) but also the Islamic State (IS) and to avoid picking up foreign media reports without editing them.
Hamza Gul, a veteran journalist for an oppositional TV channel who has long reported from border regions and is now covering the Afrin operation, told Al-Monitor, “Unfortunately, television channels, newspapers and agencies that are close to and supportive of the government and that [have a track record of] manipulative reporting have erred again during this operation. Public and private channels broadcasting from the region [receive instructions] from their headquarters on what they should say and whom they should invite for commentaries.”
“In a sense,” he continued, “a country of 80 million gets the misperception that things are unfolding in the way reported from four or five live broadcasting spots.”
For Gul, the Turkish media has failed at objective reporting and accurately informing the public “ever since the 2003 Iraq war, including [Operation] Euphrates Shield more recently and now Operation Olive Branch.”
“The Turkish public is being misled,” he added. According to Gul, reporters from more than 50 foreign media outlets had arrived in the region after the campaign started, but began to leave after a few days. “I asked why they were leaving,” he recounted. “A Russian television reporter told me they got instructions from headquarters to leave because it was not worth it as headquarters came to believe this was a move by [President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] aimed at domestic politics.”
Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders, said the prime minister’s 15-point instructions had set the limits for the Turkish media. “In terms of the results of the operation, the General Staff is not only a very distinct source of news, but seems to be managing the main axis of journalism,” he told Al-Monitor, adding he had to follow international media reports even for the basics of the operation.
“On the one hand, there is an editorial process that sanctions the operation, sometimes by opining and sometimes in a blindfolded manner, and on the other hand, journalism is almost nonexistent in the theater of action,” Onderoglu said. “Such control over journalism cannot be healthy for any society. … It is painful to see that we have to refer to journalists from various foreign media organizations who are asking the most basic questions.”
The prevailing climate in Turkey, Onderoglu believes, does not allow for questioning of the war. “In a country where journalists are not free, one cannot expect any questioning of the destructions of war and the war itself or any comprehensive coverage of Turkey’s geopolitical concerns,” he said.
“In such situations, journalism is a guarantee for society, encouraging the public to think deeper. Here, however, the climate is seemingly very favorable, with everybody backing the war and the operation. Yet the deeper apprehensions of the public — economic concerns and apprehensions about armament and militarizing a region — are not mentioned at all in the mainstream media.”
For Onderoglu, Turkish journalism has been in a “pathetic” state when it comes to the Afrin operation because the government “restricted its activities to a certain space from the very beginning.”
He said the country had lost the benefit of debate involving the media, various political quarters and academia. “In Turkey’s case, there is a government that knows everything better than anyone. All other quarters must be kept under control,” he said. “This leads to various forms of impoverishment, from lack of information to information pollution."